1) Everybody loves an underdog
When I mentioned in Japanese class that I was thinking about attending a Hanshin Tigers game during my next trip to Japan, one of my classmates jokingly booed. Everybody knows the Tigers are not great. Certainly they don’t win as often as the Yomiuri Giants, Tokyo’s most successful team. Growing up in the DC area rooting for the Baltimore Orioles (who kind of suck), and eventually the Nationals (who are great now, but it took ages for them not to suck), it’s pretty much in my genes to support teams that perform badly for arbitrary reasons.
When I saw that the Tigers would be playing the Giants during my trip, and knowing that they share Japanese baseball’s most enduring rivalry (they are sometimes compared to the Red Sox vs. the Yankees), I knew this was the game I wanted to see.
2) They have a mysterious curse
It does not matter what country you are in, baseball nuts are a superstitious bunch. The Tigers had an 18-year-losing streak that is generally considered the fault of KFC mascot Colonel Sanders—The Curse of The Colonel. You really can’t make this stuff up.
In 1985, the Tigers won the Japan Series for the first and only time. Fans celebrated by gathering around Dotonbori’s famous Glico Man sign (which resembles an athlete crossing a finish line and which Kansai residents associate with victory), while fans who resembled Tigers players took a celebratory dive into the canal. Of course, this was when American player (and current state senator) Randy Bass was on the team, and there wasn’t a white guy on hand to stand in for him. So fans snagged a nearby KFC mascot and chucked it in the canal instead.
While he was down there, apparently, the Colonel got mad and the Tigers started losing. The statue was retrieved in 2009, missing an arm and its glasses—but the Tigers haven’t won the Japan Series since ‘85. Still, this is exactly the kind of bizarre and nonsensical baseball trivia that got my friends on board with attending a Tigers game in particular.
3) Hanshin Koshien Stadium is the oldest ballpark in Japan
I was surprised to learn the earliest version of the aforementioned Glico sign went up in 1935, but Hanshin Koshien Stadium, where the Tigers play, is even older. Built in 1924, it’s only 12 years younger than America’s oldest baseball stadium, Fenway Park in Boston. It’s completely outdoors, which was perfect on a mid-April day.
I thought I lucked out with seats (in the “Alps” area above first base), but fans have since assured me there are no bad seats in the house. How comfortable those seats are is a different story. While the stadium has certainly been redone several times since 1924, attendees still sit on backless benches, not chairs.
Since the stadium is so old, it even has a museum. I learned that Babe Ruth played at Koshien Stadium near the end of his career. There was also an exhibit that showed all the times Koshien has been featured in anime and manga (since national high school baseball tournaments take place there in real life, it’s a lot of them).
I used Koshien Stadium’s English-language instructions to buy tickets, and they were relatively affordable (about $25 per person). There was even a special deal for foreigners: buy a game ticket and a stadium museum ticket (about $5) and get a free Tigers jersey. Walking with three other foreigners in Tigers jerseys, I think we made a lot of people’s day. More than anywhere else in Japan, I heard people talking about us: the gaijin-san in jerseys. And whenever the Tigers scored, drunk guys in business suits would come over and give us high fives.
4) Their fans have the most elaborate cheers
Before I left for Japan I thought it would be cool to memorize at least one Tigers cheer, but that was before I realized that cheering for sports teams in Japan is, pun intended, a whole different ballgame. Tigers fans have 29 different cheers, including individual cheers for certain players when they’re at bat, and some even have multiple verses. There was a designated cheering section at the game with people playing instruments and everything.
Since cheering was such a big deal, the Giants had their own cheering section in the stadium. What you wouldn’t see in America though: each cheering section limited their cheers to while their team was at bat, and sat quietly while the other fanbase was cheering for their team.
The Tigers lost pretty badly in the game I watched—2 to 8, unfortunately—but every time there was any hope, the crowd went wild as if the Tigers were already winning.
5) They have an amazing 7th inning tradition
When we flagged down the nearest beer seller in the stands for some Sapporo, she asked us in English if this was our first Tigers game. When we said yes, she asked if we had brought yellow balloons. We hadn’t and we were pretty stumped by her question, up until the 7th inning.
That’s when everyone around us suddenly starting blowing up oblong yellow balloons, some with black stripes drawn on them in Sharpie so they looked like tiger tails. If we were in the US, this is the time when everyone in the stadium would stand up for the 7th inning stretch. Here though, what was everyone going to do with these balloons?
If you google “Lucky 7” you can see what I saw: a simultaneous balloon release in time with a chant. It’s a specific tradition at Koshien Stadium, not something all Japanese baseball fans do. And if the Tigers win, they do it again at the end of the game.
If you aren’t a sports fan, I don’t think attending a game in Japan is going to make you one. But if you already like baseball, I’d recommend checking out what the Tigers can do. It was amazing to see a pastime I’ve always associated with America transformed into something unfamiliar. Baseball has been in Japan for more than a century now, and in that time it has gone native, with its own quirks and idiosyncrasies exclusive to Japan. Americans may love baseball, but the Japanese don’t love it any less—and it shows.